March 8 - March 29 2013
Opening Reception March 8, 5-8pm
“Anyone reading history should understand from the start that there is no such thing as impartial history. All written history is partial in two senses. It is partial in that it is only a tiny part of what really happened. That is a limitation that can never be overcome. And it is partial in that it inevitably takes sides, by what it includes or omits, what it emphasizes or deemphasizes. It may do this openly or deceptively, consciously or subconsciously”
Howard Zinn, A Peoples History of the United States
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Pope Joan, like all the women in my studio before her, dart in and out of my work for years before they take hold. A little over a year ago Pope Joan began somewhat unexpectedly to inhabit this body of work. The subjects that came before her are: Marie Curie, The Radium Girls and various women from literature and Fairy Tales.
My work revolves around the concept of mapping stories. The way stories are remembered and passed on, the way they become lost, hidden, changed through time and sometimes forgotten. I am fascinated with meaning, how human beings make meaning and how that meaning works it's way into our lives. I do not set out to represent what is believed to be the truth, I consider my viewpoint as well as the many different lenses that include popular beliefs, rumors, assumptions, stories, fact and fiction as well as what history tells us. At its core my art deals with the relationships between memory, written and oral histories, nostalgia, misinformation, cover ups and lies and how this complex web plays out socially, politically and emotionally through the stories that I focus on. These paintings, drawings and sculptures are partially told and are evolving narratives. In each, I am interested in what is included and what is concealed from our view. In art we are able to say things from multiple perspectives at once, stories that would otherwise remain untold and sometimes seam unspeakable are told.
Pope Joan is believed by some, to be a female Pope who, reigned for a few years in the 9th Century. The story was widely believed for centuries, though many modern historians and religious scholars now believe the story to be unlikely. The basics of the story go like this: she was an exceptionally intelligent religious woman who disguised herself as a man so she could get an education, which was not allowed for women of the time. She rose through the church hierarchy, eventually was chosen as Pope. However, while attempting to mount a horse, she was kicked by the horse, causing her to go into premature labor, which forced her secret, that she was a woman and also pregnant, to be revealed. She is then killed by an angry mob and her memory is shunned by the church. No one knows for sure if Pope Joan, or Pope John Anglicus, as she called herself, really existed. I am interested in the meaning behind why this story has survived, the contradictions within it and how it got here.
I came to teaching art history after many years of teaching studio art. With that change, my relationship and reflection on history has altered now that I have a role and a responsibility in the telling of it. The questions I think about in the making of my art are the same ones that I consider when I am teaching. What is a historical fact? What is history's relationship to legend or myth? Who gathers and reports the facts upon which history is assembled, and labels them as truth? How is the understanding of visual language different from written language? Does art history’s commissioned, religious art reflect the true vision of the artist or of the church? History is full of examples of stories that are emphasized or suppressed by the writers of that history. In our everyday interactions with others we may frame a story in a way that leads the listener to more fully understand our perspective or with a slight shift, to an alternate conclusion. We all know that the victors of any conflict are most often the ones that write the final story. What happens when someone else tells the story? What happens when I tell the story? The confusion and contradictions, are interesting to me, I try to include them in my work.
The presentation of women in history, culture and our communal memory has always interested me. I am intrigued by the notion of a female Pope, her identity, her perceived power and sexual prowess resulting in a baby, public shaming and her own death from human hands. Pope Joan to me is an exalted yet conflicted figure who is an emblem for me for all of the women throughout history that have been marginalized by the existing power structure. Ultimately, she is also a surrogate for all the amazing women I have come to know in my life personally, through my art and in books. In my work I am drawn to flesh and blood heroes like Marie Curie, as well as heroes like Pope Joan, who may or may not have existed. I am always interested in those rare heroes whose strength of vision enables them to ignore the almost overpowering messages of their own historical periods.
—Susan Montgomery 2013